Butterfly Gardens for Beginners:
Some Thoughts from a Beginner
Butterfly Gardening is one of the most popular garden topics right now. As a horticulturist at a public garden, it is almost expected that we would put in a butterfly section, and many homeowners have done so as well. As a beginner at building such gardens, but as a lifelong gardener, I was curious about the techniques and travails of building a garden to attract a specific sector of wildlife. Herewith are some observations about making a butterfly garden in the subtropics.
The first observation I made is that many butterflies like to feed on weeds, such as Spanish Needles ( Bidens). The second observation is that butterflies have not read any books about what they are supposed to feed on, and will feed on anything they happen to like. In other words, buying a book on attracting butterflies will not guarantee success, but it helps to do so. Be observant and see what butterflies feed on in your garden. The third observation is that it is better to build a butterfly habitat than a butterfly garden. To be really successful with attracting these living, flying works of art, remember they like sunlight, water, diverse food supplies, and nearby shelter.
They like a wide variety of plants on which to feed, and plenty of protection from predators. Planting 6 attractive plants does not constitute a butterfly garden. I see people who plant one native plant or one Pentas, then sit and wait for butterflies to arrive. ( There can be a very long wait). The better idea is to plant groups of plants in long, curving rows, intermixed with varying heights of shade trees ( which might also double-duty as larval plants). Make sure there is fresh water available, if only in a shallow bowl that might get some spray from a sprinkler.
Rotten fruit make excellent food sources for many insects as well as attracting a range of butterflies. Citrus, banana, and other juicy fruits are full of sugars which appeal to butterflies. I often get the question about how to attract the rare Green Malachite Butterfly in Miami. My response is to plant a large grove of mixed fruit trees such as mango, avocado, lychee and citrus, let the weeds grow several feet tall, and leave all the rotten fruit on the ground. These same people read a book saying that the Green Malachite feeds on white shrimp plant, then avidly try to find one, thinking that the butterflies feed on just one plant. Few nurseries stock this species since it is such a weed.
Butterflies also like a lot of sunlight, and are essentially solar-powered insects. Bright, open areas mixed with shade plants works well. Plant species with lots of brightly colored small flowers such as Pentas, Lantana, Salvia, Milkweed, Cone Flower and a long list of others. Provide an entire habitat, perhaps connected to a small tree area or grove and the butterflies will come. Reading extensively on the species in your area will help, but there are local experts in any area who will readily help with such projects. The big decision to make is how much effort and commitment you are willing to make in keeping such a garden alive and healthy.